Tag Archives: Panopticon
Forever Overhead: GPS and Everyphone

Forever Overhead: GPS and Everyphone


KAL 007
In 1983, Soviet fighters detected and shot down a large jet they may have believed was a US RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft–it wasn’t; it was Korean Airlines flight 007–all 269 passengers and crew were killed,including an American Congressman. As well as the RC-135 that was in the air that night, a number of carrier-launched reconnaissance aircraft had been overflying Soviet installations on the Kurile Islands for months as part of the naval component of the notorious NATO operation ABLE ARCHER 83. In Presidential lore, Reagan’s emotional reaction is said to have led to the declassification of GPS in 1983. Ostensibly, he believed that access to these positioning data could be prevent the sort of straying that led to the KAL 007 incident. This sort of emotional response and its ramifications might seem a bit far-fetched, but given his Reagan’s reaction to the TV movie “The Day After” might be less surprising (let’s not forget his zealous pursuit of comprehensive arms control):

Edmund Morris, Reagan’s official biographer, said the film left Reagan “dazed” and produced the only admission he could find in Reagan’s papers that he was “greatly depressed.” Four days later, he said, Reagan was “still fighting off the depression caused by The Day After. (David Hoffman, The Dead Hand p. 91)

The trajectory of KAL 007 into Soviet airspace (CIA)


Incidentally, KAL 007 is hardly the only accidental shoot down of a commercial aircraft to have geopolitical significance. Indeed, less than five years later the USS Vicennes would shoot down Iran Air flight 655 (while in Iran’s territorial waters; the plane was also over Iranian territory).

GPS Goes Public
This isn’t the beginning of GPS’s story, but it is a seminal point in public access to the network. The Defense Department’s NAVSTAR GPS program began in 1973, and the first satellite was launched in 1978he though the system was made public in 1983, it was not completed until 1993-995 (the network comprises–among other Earthbound parts of the system–24 1-ton satellites, though the original number was 11, then 18; the full 18 were up in 1985–these were the Block I set, the full 24 were part of the Block II program). There’s significant nuance to the dates, generation and number of the satellites that I’m glossing over here on my way to the point; the Wikipedia article is actually quite comprehensive .

Initially, GPS receivers were restricted to auto-bound or handheld devices used by more serious trekkers, eventually a more commodity-level rental car add-on, and now a normal component of the typical smartphone.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that the iPhone was storing the phone’s location data and even sending it periodically to Apple. Note that these were not actually GPS data but locations derived from cell towers and wi-fi hotspots. Apple’s response was that the data were anonymous and used to optimize services based on these data. One problem was the length of time the data were being stored (a year) and the fact that the file was unencrypted. This was addressed soon after by an iPhone firmware update; now the information is only stored for a week (this is, incidentally, not unique to the iPhone–Android captures these data as well). There was at least one successful case of the issue being taken to court in Korea.

This exposure was made by Alasdair Allen and Pete Warden. Somewhat balancing the Foucauldian power relationship, they released an application that would allow users to see these data on a visual map. To be honest, making lemonade until the firmware update I quite enjoyed looking at the data as a sort of Situationist memory device.

Personal trajectory

I also managed to get to... well, see for yourself

The first image hews clearly to the freeways of the Bay Area. Closer zooming gives you a clear enough matrix of locations that you could perhaps trace the streets of San Francisco without the underlaid map. Which reminds me not only of the previously-mentioned North Korea image but also the signature left by a number of cabs trawling the streets of SF via Stamen’s old Cabspotting webapp (good gravy, that was 2006!):



Panopticon 2.0
(as in Web 2.0–as in the user-contributed content sense)
I was meaning here to invoke check-ins on Facebook and the like via location-aware mobile devices. Looking up Foursquare, I find out they’re not without a sense of humor (or perhaps–unlike the 90s when I was apparently cleverer–the obvious)–I’ve now realized not so clever or cynical, as it was my own confused Googling. Still:

An amusing accident...


Crowdflow.net produced a wonderful visualization of the movement of 880 iPhones in Europe this April (submitted willingly of course!) I find it oddly similar–when not in motion–to the satellite image of North vs. South Korea at night posted in a prior Forever Overhead:


And of course more conventionally, GPS data have been used for years to track the movements of criminals via anklets and other penal jewelry. The Atlantic has a wonderful article on this contemporary Panopticon.

Reagan’s original statement on KAL 007:


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Forever Overhead: Panopticon 2.0

Forever Overhead: Panopticon 2.0

Seeing is knowledge is power…


Panopticon, USA
Simplistic to be sure, but one could do worse if pressed for Foucault in five words. Knowledge and power are inextricably entwined, and seeing confers knowledge. Foucault made a trope of Jeremy Bentham’s architectural model, the Panopticon, to embody the role of observation in power relations. The Panopticon centralizes and privileges seeing; because everyone is a potential subject, they become an object of passive cohersion. In a prison designed on this model, the warden, situated in a central tower, could see every prisoner; since no one could be certain whether they were the focus of his gaze, they would regulate their own behavior, almost constantly, without active cohersion (discipline)–in fact, no one need be watching at all (the shelf life of this would, of course, be limited!): the mere threat of being observed would suffice.

Bentham's Panopticon (Wikimedia Commons)

…it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. (Foucault, page 201 in the Vintage edition of Discipline & Punish)

The Threat of Visibility
But far more than just the person, the body, can be seen and confer power–all the traces of our lives have this capacity. For example, the immense trove of knowledge (films, photos, wiretaps, recovered mail, even gossip) that J. Edgar Hoover hoarded furthers the possibilities of passive cohersion, and couples control with reconnaisance. The fact that this hoard existed was an open secret, and no one, not even–especially not–the president was immune; any aspect of anyone’s “private” life might be exploited by Hoover or those he deigned to share scraps of this power with. Anyone who knew this might moderate their own behavior lest traces be sucked up by Hoover’s “Hoover”. Failing that, their only recourse would be to carefully manage their relationship with the FBI Director (not the office, but the Director himself).

Information Wants To Be Free
But, in the words of Stewart Brand, “Information wants to be free” (though originally he meant this in terms of expense, not liberation), and apparently it also seeks to liberate itself. And so, with for instance Google Maps/Earth/Street View, we become our own warden. Increasingly there is no single, centralized warden: less and less information is the exclusive property of state-operated agencies (to some degree–what’s worthy of exposé may not be sufficient to locate and destroy Usama bin Laden, for instance). Now anyone, given sufficient means, can acquire commercial satellite imagery (there was a time when the idea of commoditizing these images was contentious–indeed, how much longer will drones remain the sole province of state-run agencies?), or just find it on Google Earth and gain some knowledge worthy of exposure.

Google Street View

Panopticon Now
The contemporary Panopticon is not merely a penal device; not only is it a ubiquitous source of institutional intrusion, it’s also a framework for entertainment:

  • Workplace email
  • A Supreme Court nominee’s video rentals
  • Non-cash transaction records
  • Facebook (where we all can watch each other, for fun!)
  • Location check-in apps (wave to the Panopticon!)
  • Google dependency
  • iPhone GPS data storage.

Google Street View

But in popular culture it’s a trope all its own: reality TV (indeed, one of the progenitors of the genre was called “Big Brother”), protagonist/antagonist relationships throughout drama (think Klute, or the classic Lifetime drama, the Eye of Sauron, Rear Window–or just about anything, really).

However, for the purposes of this series, I’ll just focusing on the overhead manifestations, particularly the “democratizing” ones. Satellites, drones, and other forms of aerial sensing might be considered a sort of vertical Panopticon.

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